Is it COVID or just a Bad Pillow?
I saw a patient last week who told me that she can't sleep at night. "I watch CNN before I go to bed. Between COVID and the elections, my head is spinning. By the time I close my laptop and turn the lights off, I'm too wound up to sleep. Should I get a better pillow?"
There are two sleep robbers in her story. Can you guess what they are?
Ok, she wasn't drinking coffee at night. But... Computers and CNN!
Computer screens (including our phones) emit short-wavelength, artificial blue light. Although staring at blue lights during the day tends to boost attention and mood, long blasts of those blue light rays at night doesn't do much for sleep. Correction. It does affect sleep, just in a BAD way. Blue light:
Melatonin: The Hormone of Darkness
You've seen commercials for melatonin as a sleeping pill. But did you know that your pineal glad produces melatonin all by itself for no cost?
There's only one problem. Our brain only produces melatonin at night--in darkness. You know where this is going. Exposure to light, prevents the natural release of melatonin that makes us sleepy at night. Even dim light can reduce melatonin secretion. Stephen Lockley, a Harvard sleep researcher says, "Light at night is part of the reason so many people don't get enough sleep." Short sleep increases your risk for depression, diabetes and heart disease.
So turn off those computers at least an hour before bed. Or if you are truly an addict, dim your screen light to the lowest you can stand. Maybe the frustration of barely seeing the screen will get you to put your computer away and turn on some chill music instead.
What about CNN you ask? You probably already know why watching emotionally-charged, worry-inducing, heart-racing news interferes with sleep.
Do you have trouble falling asleep? Tell us why?
I was supposed to attend an herbal intensive in Taos this weekend but because of COVID-19, the event was held virtually. I'm more of a hermit anyway, so the idea of getting the information in my own quiet space was still appealing. The instructor, Tiarona Low Dog, a physician and master herbalist, offered all I expected and more. There are so many ways to understand medicine. I'll start by saying that they're not just pills you down with a cool glass of water and a big swallow.
Medicine Is Lots of Things
Medicine can be an herb that you add to your food, like turmeric that is a powerful anti-inflammatory used often in Indian cuisine. The antihypertensive called garlic that you mince and cook up with some great pesto. It can be the L-theanine "chill-axation" you get with a nice oolong tea.
I can't remember the last time (before this class) that I thought of food as medicine. I'm too used to stuffing my face with the things I love, like refined sugars and carbs: pasta, potatoes, cookies and ice cream. I'm more inclined to think of my meals as a minefield of calories, carbs and weight gain. Could there really be some hidden society of sages that choose their food based on a decision to feel good or to relieve depression and anxiety? Yes! And they were at my herbal conference with Dr. Low Dog this weekend. I even discovered that you can reduce the glycemic load of your meal by 35%, just by adding an acid like vinegar, lemon or lime juice,
How cool is that?
But back to herbs for mental health...
Trophorestoratives for the Brain.
A Trophorestorative is a food that has an affinity for a specific body tissue or organ and that works to restore normal function. Today, we're going to look at one trophorestorative that has an affinity for the central nervous system, your brain and spinal cord with all its circuitry of nerves that allow you to feel a pin prick, or pins and needles when a leg or arm "falls asleep".
Omega-3 fatty acids
You've probably gotten used to thinking of Omega 3 fatty acids as a heart healthy food, but did you know that it's also good for brain health?
Omega 3's EPA and DHA have been shown to be helpful for reducing depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other mental disorders, most likely because of their impact on the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Check out the effects of your typical antidepressant and you'll see that all of them increase one or both of the same neurotransmitters!
O-3's also support communication between neurons which can boost the brain's ability to remember.
Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA can be found in wild cold water fish like salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel. Your body can also produce EPA and DHA out of another omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and soybeans. And don't forget seaweed and avocados!
Gotta go make dinner now. I'll get back to the things I learned this weekend in my next blog post.
Elaine Orabona Foster, Ph.D.